5 of the richest companies in history

Inconceivable wealth. And a few lessons in how not to get rich, too.

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  • You've definitely heard of Apple. But what about the Dutch East India Company?
  • Did a 1911 Supreme Court decision result in more millionaires in America than any other court case?
  • One example of how not to do it: the rise and fall of the Mississippi Company.

Dutch East India Company

The VOC flag. Photo credit: Michael Coghlan via Flickr.

Known under the initials VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie), the Dutch East India Company would be worth about $7.8 trillion today. Founded in 1602, it accomplished globalist capitalism some 400 years before everyone else did. It began as a shipping company — with a 21 year monopoly on the Dutch spice market — before branching into almost every aspect of the spice trade, from production to consumer sales, while still keeping a massive footprint in the shipping industry at large for more than 100 years. But this success came at a massive moral cost: they exploited foreign workers, imprisoned many, and benefitted hugely from the slave trade. But for that 100 years, VOC was a gargantuan presence around the world. They controlled armadas of ships that were able to fight off navies and take territories, an impressive feat for a privately held company (imagine if Arby's began to take over entire city blocks).

You could probably say that the very idea of globalism stems from the VOC. Europeans wanted spices and textiles from Asia, but Asia didn't want very much in return except for precious metals — which Portugal and Spain had in abundance at the time. Paraphrasing here for the sake of brevity, the VOC created a hugely profitable trade corridor between Asia and Europe. And from around 1620 to 1630, the VOC used profits to reinvest in itself, becoming exponentially bigger in the process.

The Mississippi Company and the South Sea Company

John Law

Ooh, boy. This is a story. In you lived in France in the early 1700s you'd have likely heard of the Mississippi Company. Depending on which version of their history you read, you'll get two very different narratives about the company. They either controlled much of France's commercial interests in the New World for 20 years before fizzling out due to mismanagement... or they shipped convicts and prostitutes to Arkansas and Louisiana to ostensibly work for them in order to inflate their numbers and increase speculation on paper which nearly led to bankrupting France.

Both versions of the company history hold true. The central figure of the story was a Scottish economist named John Law who convinced the then-king of France, Louis XIV, to allow him to run the Banque Générale Privée ("General Private Bank") in 1716, taking on the national debt, which he then used to finance the Mississippi Company to organize trade with the New World. Law's company, in the space of two short years, bought several other shipping companies in order to create a near-monopoly of trade on the world's oceans. In order to fund such a massive operation, in 1720 the Mississippi Company became tied into the Banque Générale, which became the Banque Royale. Law kept pushing the valuation of his company and soon began shipping prisoners and prostitutes to America to work for his company as part of a marketing scheme which promised huge returns on stock.

The thing is: the scheme worked... but only for a very short while. Stocks soared, and then crashed. The whole cycle lasted just 4 years. Law fled to London and then to Venice, where he gambled away what he had left and died penniless in 1729 in Venice.

At roughly the same time, a joint-stock company was formed in England called the South Sea Company. John Law had been exiled from England after killing a man in a duel in 1694 (and was only free as he'd managed to escape prison and flee to Amsterdam), but after word of his successes with the Mississippi Company reached British shores they decided to set up their own similar joint-stock venture. The South Sea Company was given a monopoly to trade with South America. It, too, overvalued itself... mostly through speculation of a £70 million line of credit through the King of England himself, which never actually happened. A rush on stock by a who's-who of the who-was in England at the time (including Sir Isaac Newton, who had bought about £22,000 in South Sea stock) — followed by a slew of insider trading by South Sea employees who realized the bubble was about to burst — brought about a huge economic crash.

Both the South Sea Company and the Mississippi Company didn't actually do much trading with the Americas. It was mostly just a clever marketing ploy combined with public gullibility.

Saudi Aramco

Businessmen in Saudi Arabia

Invited foreign and Saudi investors attend the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh, on October 24, 2017.

The head of oil giant Saudi Aramco said that a lack of recent investments in the oil sector could lead to a shortage of supplies. / AFP PHOTO / FAYEZ NURELDINE

Still around today, Saudi Aramco is one of the world's biggest oil producers. Adjusted for inflation, at it's height, the company was worth $4.1 trillion.

When oil was discovered in Bahrain in 1932, the Saudi government accepted a bid from the newly-founded California-Arabian Standard Oil Company to search for oil in nearby Saudi Arabia. Soon after, Texas OilCo bought a 50 percent stake in California-Arabian. For the next five years, no oil was discovered and the company was hemorrhaging money. Finally, oil was discovered in Dhahran in 1938 and production quickly soared. Changing its name to Arabian American Oil Co (or, for short, Aramco) in 1944, it was then forced to share its profits with the Saudi government starting in 1950. This essentially nationalized the oil production, leading the huge amounts of money for the Saudi government. In 1980, the Saudi government assumed full control of Aramco.

While not quite as colorful a history as the Mississippi Company, Aramco is itself responsible for what economists now call the "golden gimmick" — wherein (and I'm definitely paraphrasing) a country's government takes shares from the company because it's just so darn profitable. Must be nice.

Standard Oil 

John D Rockefeller circa 1930: at work in his study. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Ever heard the phrase "richer than a Rockefeller"? Well, that's because John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1870 in Ohio. It became the largest oil refinery in the world for a number of years. Adjusted for inflation, in 1905, it was worth well over $1 trillion in today's money.

Rockefeller controlled 90 percent of the oil in America during the early 20th century; oil was used during that time primarily as a light source for lamps (this is before electricity became widely available) and then, with the invention of the car, became fuel for automobiles. Rockefeller was the cornerstone of two major industries until 1911, when Standard Oil was dissolved by none other than the U.S. Supreme Court for being an "illegal monopoly." When Standard Oil was broken up into 34 different companies — the shares of those companies became worth more than Standard Oil was, thus making Rockefeller obscenely wealthy instead of just extraordinarily wealthy.

How rich was John D. Rockefeller? Well, in 1913 he alone was worth about 2 percent of the entire U.S. GDP — about $400 billion, when adjusted for today's inflation. He attributed his success to a hard work ethic, his faith in God, and his abstinence from alcohol.

Oh, and those 34 companies? Two of them, Jersey Standard and Socony, became Exxon and Mobil, respectively. They eventually merged into a new company called Exxon-Mobil. That single company took over exactly where Standard Oil had left off and became a huge player in the gasoline industry. In 2007, it was worth $572 billion.

Apple

Apple CEO Steve Jobs speaks during an Apple special event April 8, 2010 in Cupertino, California. Jobs announced the new iPhone OS4 software. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Apple was founded back in 1976 by Steve Jobs, a canny marketer, and Steve Wozniak, an unparalleled programmer and computer genius. They had early successes in personal computers with the Apple I and the Macintosh, but by the mid-'90s they'd petered out, seemingly much more interested in appeasing shareholders than the public. Did you know Apple made CD players for a while? Digital cameras? A lot of people don't remember Apple's "weird" period.

But let's single out the the Apple Newton. This PDA (personal digital assistant) nearly bankrupted the company in 1993 after being rushed out before it was ready; it's handwriting recognition feature could barely read anything other than block letters and was widely mocked. Hold that thought for a paragraph.

Around 1997, Steve Jobs returned to the company and decided to concentrate on what the company did best: personal computing that catered to regular day-to-day users rather than avid tech professionals. He began to cater to different groups with singular products. The PowerMac for pro users. The iMac for classrooms. The MacBook and the MacBook Pro for people working out of coffeeshops.

But then Apple created the iPod, which could hold an entire library of music in your pocket. It was followed by the iPhone... a landmark device that put the internet, colors and all, in your pocket. The iPhone, funnily enough, has huge similarities to the much maligned Newton. Now consider the iPad and the Apple Pencil and how their handwriting recognition technology is considered the best in the industry. Sometimes you have the right idea but just 20 years too soon.

Then there was the iTunes store, which took over the music industry. Then the App Store, which transformed the tech ecosystem. In August of 2018, they became the most valuable company in the world with $1 trillion in value.

Which is still pennies compared to the Dutch East India Company. But hey. Who's counting?

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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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